THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN

"Battle of Britain - The Movie", by Robert J. Rudhall, book excerpt #15
All text by the late Robert J. Rudhall, circa 2000

 


Just How Historically Accurate Was Battle of Britain?


Given that Battle of Britain deals with an historical subject, to ensure that our study of the film is complete we need to examine just how good, or otherwise, was the end result. Well-known Battle of Britain historian and author Dilip Sarkar, whose works include the renowned Bader's Duxford Fighters: The Big Wing Controversy (see Bibliography), gives his view and reports on one particular scene which by many would be considered comparatively insignificant, to those 'in the know' crucial.

Whenever the historical accuracy of Battle of Britain is mooted it is vital to remember that the intention was not to produce a documentary but an epic film. Given the limitations imposed by time and resources, not to mention the constraints of the available budget, I believe that the job was ultimately well done. The events of 1940 are, I have discovered, too great for the study of just one lifetime, so the challenge of encapsulating the essential elements of our Finest Hour in just over an hour was immense. When considering the film's overall impression, let us not worry about the technical trivia, such as uniform and aircraft related minutiae. The question is whether or not Battle of Britain conveys the urgency of the hour?

Even as an eight-year old schoolboy who watched the opening night at Worcester's Odeon, I was left in no doubt that the whole British way of life, and much more besides, hung in the balance that dramatic summer. In the event of the battle having been lost by Fighter Command, Britain's fate would clearly have been that of France, as emphasized by the film's first few minutes.

Since first watching the film 30 years ago, I have virtually dedicated my life to researching the summer of 1940, largely through primary sources. Over the years, as a part of this process, I have asked a number of the Few for their opinion of Battle of Britain. Overall, they too feel that the film was both worthwhile and as accurate as the relevant limitations allowed. Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley-Milling, however, who had flown with Squadron Leader Douglas Bader's 242 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, emphasized that one particular historic scene in Battle of Britain did not actually take place. This was the meeting between Air Chief Marshal Dowding and the Air Officers Commanding Nos 11 & 12 Groups, Air Vice-Marshals Keith Park and Trafford Leigh-Mallory. The significance of this brief encounter between these three men could easily be either overlooked or completely lost on the casual viewer, however. There are reasons why the scene was, in fact, crucial and this I will try to explain.

Although this is not the forum for a detailed examination of Air Chief-Marshal Dowding's System of Air Defence, the reader must be aware of certain facts. The country, for example, was divided into Fighter Groups, each with its own specific area of responsibility. Air Vice-Marshal Park's No 11 Group covered London and the southeast, and therefore bore the brunt of the battle, whilst Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory's 12 Group covered the industrial Midlands. Nevertheless, in the event of Air Vice-Marshal Park calling for assistance, the 'System' provided that the adjacent Groups, being 10 and 12, would respond.

The System, it must be remembered, was created before the war by the genius Air Chief Marshal Dowding together with his Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO), none other than (the then) Air Commodore Park. The pair had both seen combat as fighter pilots and leaders in the Great War and this experience, coupled with Dowding's technical ability which harnessed radar into his far-sighted System, marked them as outstanding amongst even the most experienced fighter leaders in the world.

By 1940, Park was commanding No II Group and his previous experiences prove beyond doubt that he, like Dowding, was the right man for the right job "at the right time. Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory, however, was a former Army Co-operation Pilot with, incredibly, no fighter experience whatsoever. This deficiency would not stop him, however, challenging the conduct of the Battle of Britain by the awesome Dowding and Park. In a nutshell, Park's tactics, in accordance with the System, were to intercept the enemy by way of penny-packet formations of Hurricanes and Spitfires which harried the raiders
all the way to the target and out again.

The ambitious Leigh-Mallory, however, was undoubtedly frustrated by the fact that, due to the geography involved, his 12 Group was being forced to play second fiddle to Park's. Leigh-Mallory had, in fact, achieved the rank of Air Vice-Marshal before Park and therefore considered himself the senior of the two, this making even more unbearable the fact that Park was in the limelight. Many of 12 Group's pilots were frustrated at their inactivity, on the sidelines, whilst their comrades in 11 Group were being so hard pressed. Amongst Leigh-Mallory's pilots was Acting Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, already a legend in the RAF A gifted sportsman and pre-war service pilot, Bader had lost his legs as the result of an accident occurring during unauthorised low-level aerobatics. Although he mastered his artificial legs, King's Regulations did not cater for disabled pilots and so, in 1933, Bader left the service. The outbreak ofWW2, however, was his salvation and he was accepted back into the RAF on flying duties. By February 1940 he was a Flying Officer on 19 Squadron, commanded by Cranwell friend and contemporary Geoffrey Stephens. Despite having damaged a Spitfire in unforgivable circumstances, in April he was promoted to Acting Flight Lieutenant and given command of 222 Squadron's 'A' Flight (the Squadron's Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader 'Tubby' Mermagen, having been a rugby and aerobatics contemporary). After Dunkirk, and yet another crash, the newsworthy and charismatic young Bader was promoted to Acting Squadron Leader and given command of the (largely Canadian) 242 Squadron. Demoralized after the Fall of France, 242 required strong leadership. Bader gave the Squadron just that, declaring it operational on July 9th, 1940, just one day before the Battle of Britain commenced.

During August 1940, the Luftwaffe pounded Fighter Command's Sector Stations and other airfields in southern England. On the afternoon of August 30th, a large formation of enemy aircraft crossed the coast north of the Thames. Anticipating attacks on the airfields in that area, such as North Weald, Debden and Hornchurch, the 11 Group Controller quite rightly and in accordance with the System, requested assistance from 12 Group. Consequently 242 Squadron . was scrambled from Duxford. The enemy formation soon split in two, I/KG 1 heading for the Vauxhall Motor Works and aerodrome at Luton, whilst II/KG53 struck out for the Handley Page aircraft factory at Radlett. Already the raiders were being harried by a number of 11 Group squadrons.

Squadron Leader Bader was vectored and led 242 Squadron into the attack. This was, it must be remembered, the first time that 242 Squadron had encountered a Valhalla; to the 11 Group squadrons concerned, Nos 1,501 and 222, it was just another day. Back at Duxford, 242 Squadron claimed the singlehanded destruction of various Me 110s and He 111s, the pilots' combat reports making no mention of other RAF fighters, the presence of which, it can only be assumed, they were oblivious to in the heat of the moment. Squadron Leader Pemberton, the Commanding Officer of No 1 Squadron, reported attacking an Me 110 'in company with a Hurricane of "LE" squadron', 'LE' being the code letters of 242 Squadron. Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory nevertheless accepted 242 Squadron's claims without question and proclaimed an overwhelming victory, for no loss, by 12 Group. In reality, just nine enemy aircraft had been destroyed by some 50 RAF fighters, as opposed to just 242 Squadron as 12 Group believed.

This interception convinced Squadron Leader Bader, whose current operational experience and understanding of the System was clearly minimal, that the way forward for 12 Group was arriving over the combat area en masse. With himself at the head of several fighter squadrons, he firmly believed that his formation could then execute far greater damage to the enemy than the prevalent pennypacket forces. It also provided a long-awaited opportunity for himself and 12 Group to playa much more significant part in the Battle of Britain. The forceful and charismatic Bader had no problems convincing his Station Commander, Wing Commander 'Woody' Woodhall and the former Army Co-operation pilot Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory, that these tactics were right. An analysis of August 30th, however, proves conclusively that this theory was flawed from the outset.

Subsequently 12 Group began assembling up to five fighter squadrons in the Duxford Sector, these being led off south by Squadron Leader Bader in the event of a scramble. The System demanded that when 11 Group called for assistance, 12 Group's intended role was to patrol above and protect 11 Group's airfields. This was not what either Leigh-Mallory or Bader wanted, however.

Over the years, and indeed in the scene from Battle of Britain in question (as we shall see), criticism of the 12 Group Wing tactics have been that as so many fighters took so long to form up, they invariable arrived over the combat area too late. This is, in fact, not true, as there was no forming up process. Squadron Leader Bader merely took off and headed south whilst the other pilots followed in his wake. The crux of the matter was this: although the 11 Group controller, having called for assistance, had every right to expect 12 Group to undertake its intended role, on numerous occasions the Duxford squadrons were not, in fact, where they were supposed to be. Instead the 'Big Wing' was over Kent, to all intents and purposes on a free-lance fighter sweep. As a result of 12 Group deliberately not complying to the System, Debden, for example, was heavily bombed. No wonder, therefore, Air Vice-Marshal Park and his Controllers took exception to the behaviour of 12 Group.

The evidence conclusively proves that the more fighters there are involved in combat, the less accurate are pilots' combat claims. The reason for this is quite simply that the speed of combat deceives the human eye given that several fighters could attack the same enemy aircraft actually oblivious to each other's presence. That downed German would, therefore, be claimed several fold thus providing a distorted picture. No attempt appears to have been made at the time by 12 Group to cross-reference these claims against actual German crash sites in southern England. After every Wing action, many combat successes were claimed, these being accepted wholeheartedly by Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory who took this as confirmation that 12 Group had got it right. Of course the claims made by 11 Group squadrons, engaging in smaller numbers, were far less but again the evidence conclusively proves that, due to 12 Group's massive over claiming factor, it was actually 11 Group that shot down more Germans.

The ambitious and influential Leigh-Mallory obtained support from friends in high places, including both other officers of Air rank and senior politicians. 242 Squadron's adjutant was an MP, in fact, who spoke to the Prime Minister personally. Dowding and Park, on the other hand, were professional fighter leaders, not politicians. Whilst creating the System, to which Dowding was so dedicated, he had made enemies at Whitehall. In fact, certain antagonisms with various personalities in the Leigh-Mallory camp went back to the Great War. As Dowding and Park were fighting and winning the Battle of Britain, it is tragic that others sought to oppose and discredit them based upon a poor appreciation and flawed analysis of the events, combats and tactics brought into question.

Given that during the summer of 1940 both Dowding and Park had busied themselves not with advancing themselves but saving this country in its hour of need, by the time both realized the danger it was too late. On October 17th, a meeting of the Air Staff took place at the Air Ministry, the purpose of which, it became obvious to Dowding and Park, was to push through the use of Wing tactics as standard operating procedure.

Although Park was not invited to bring one of his pilots to provide a first-hand operational view, Leigh-Mallory produced Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, at whom Dowding 'looked most sternly', as well he might. The dice was loaded from the outset against Dowding and Park. Typically, Dowding had actually placed little importance on the meeting beforehand. He felt that the Germans' tactics had changed so much that any thought of using massed fighter formations was, from a defensive viewpoint, 'out of the question'. To Dowding the Air Staff was not looking ahead, as the meeting claimed, but to the past. It rapidly dawned upon both Dowding and Park that this was a post-mortem of Fighter Command tactics and that they were both being called to account. The Commander-in-Chief then realized his one grave mistake, this being crucial to the scene under debate, that being that he had 'made a mistake in allowing my Group Commanders so much liberty in running their Groups in their own way' . Of the two Group commanders he later said: I
was entirely on Park's side without, up to that time, having to say much. There was no need for me to say it. He was carrying out his assigned task, and there was no need for any comment from me. But I had come by then to realize that Leigh-Mallory was not conducting the affairs of his Group in the way that I expected of him. I did not want to say "you mustn't do this, you mustn't do that". I expected more of my Group Commanders. And that was why, by mid-October, I had come to realize that I would have to do something about what was going on and get rid of Leigh-Mallory.

Unfortunately by the time Dowding was able to turn his mind away from the Germans and take stock of enemies closer to home, it was too late.

The tactical row continued beyond the 'Meeting of Infamy' and well into the winter of 1940. Dowding now realized the extent of subordination by Leigh-Mallory, Woodhall and Bader, but, having to busy himself with the raging night blitz, the damage had already been done. So it was that the two great architects of victory in the Battle of Britain were not given high honours but saw Dowding given 24 hours to clear his desk and Park sent to Training Command. Those who had orchestrated their downfall were quick to fill their positions (but never their shoes): Sholto-Douglas, the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Leigh-Mallory supporter and enemy of Park, became Fighter Command's Commander-in-Chief. Leigh-Mallory took Park's 11 Group. Later, in the final insult, Leigh-Mallory succeeded Douglas as Commander-in-Chief.

The fact of the matter in 1940 was that massed fighter formations were not flexible enough for defence, and, in fact, simple calculations concerning time over distance easily proves that they were inappropriate so far as the Battle of Britain was concerned. At an exercise held after the Battle of Britain, the Big Wings failed miserably in the defensive role. The Wing's time would come - as already envisaged by the brilliant Dowding and Park who had used such formations over Dunkirk - in an offensive role from 1941 onwards.

Aware now of these background circumstances, the reader can begin to appreciate why Air Marshal Crowley-Milling placed such emphasis on the scene in question. Not surprisingly both Dowding and Park were concerned about the making of Battle of Britain. The Auckland Times reported that the New Zealander Air Chief Marshal Park (as was his retired rank) had charged that the film would cover up 'a dirty little wartime intrigue'. Despite Air Ministry apologists, and certain academic historians in recent times, seeking to provide a justifiable rationale for the disgraceful treatment of Dowding and Park, the Air Chief Marshal's statement continued: -

There was a dirty little intrigue going on behind the scenes among the Air Ministry staff and the Group immediately to the rear of No 11. As a result of this intrigue, just after the Battle of Britain was won, the Air Ministry sacked Dowding and I was sent off to Training Command.

Naturally in 1968 this was an international story boosted by the fact that Rex Harrison suddenly dropped out of playing the role of Keith Park (although soon replaced by Trevor Howard). The producers of Battle of Britain consequently sought to enlist the aid of Lord Dowding himself to reassure Air Chief Marshal Park. Lord Dowding was brought to Pinewood Studios where he met some of the cast and saw at least two scenes, including that under question, being filmed.

Let us now revisit those few minutes of Battle of Britain: -

Int. DOWDING'S office. Bentley Priory. Night.

LEIGH-MALLORY and PARK face DOWDING across his desk, which is heavy with files. LEIGH-MALLORY is a squarely built, ambitious and forceful man, the advocate of offensive tactics. Now he is controlled and sure of himself. PARK is trying to appear unruffled.

LEIGH-MALLORY (to DOWDING)
We were up, sir. Trying to knock the enemy out en masse. But it takes time to assemble forty or fifty aircraft at fifteen thousand feet.

PARK

And by the time the Big Wing's up there, its too late. The enemy have hit their targets and are on their way home.

DOWDING, from over his spectacles, regards his warring commanders reserving judgment, keeping his own counsel, though his sympathies are with PARK.

LEIGH-MALLORY (with certainty)
Does it matter where they're shot down so long as they're shot down in large numbers?

PARK
The targets are my airfields!

LEIGH-MALLORY
I'd rather destroy fifty after they've hit their targets than 10 before.

PARK
But you're not getting fifty. You're not even getting ten!

DOWDING
Gentlemen, you are missing the essential truth. The limit of our endurance is in sight.. .. We're short of200 pilots. Those we have are tired and strained, and all due for relief.

DOWDING
We're fighting for survival. And losing. We don't need a Big Wing or a Small Wing. We need pilots ....

In the distance we can hear the sirens starting to wail.

DOWDING
.... And a miracle ....
(Pause)
Goodnight, gentlemen.

DOWDING turns to his files, as if the two commanders were already no longer present.

When the scene was complete Lord Dowding remained silent. What, I wonder, was he thinking?

We know now that in reality the meeting never took place, and that for the film's purposes it was necessary to compress certain events. In fairness to the producers, it was surely a brave step to even attempt to tackle such a complex and emotive subject as the Big Wing Controversy. By Lord Dowding's own admission, he should not have given his Group commanders so much authority. Had he kept a tighter rein then the situation may not have degenerated to the extent that it did. Unfortunately for Dowding he trusted his Group commanders to do what was expected of them, this blind faith being totally justified in the case of Park but not Leigh-Mallory. By the time he was aware of Leigh-Mallory's scheming against him, it was too late. It is doubtful, therefore, whether it would ever have occurred to Dowding during the Battle of Britain to get these two Group commanders together as portrayed in the film. In fact he never did. The only time the threesome came into face-to-face contact over this tactical issue was at the Air Staff's meeting of October 17th. Had Dowding acted sooner and kept the matter within Fighter Command, the outcome for both Park and himself could have been very different.

Nevertheless, his Lordship was reassured following his visit to Pinewood, after which he wrote to Air Chief Marshal Park:

MY DEAR PARK,
     I have heard from indirect sources that you are apprehensive as to the way in which you will be treated by the great film which is being shot on the Battle of Britain at present.
     However as matters stand I hope that I can relieve you of any apprehensions as to the treatment you will receive at the hands of the film company. They have invited me to be present on several occasions, on their working days, and I have had the opportunity of ensuring that you will receive sympathetic treatment at their hands. Amongst other things I have had a talk with the actor who is going to play your part, and, although I feel sure that he would not have allowed himself to be biased in any way in his rendering of your conduct and your character, I feel sure that after what I have told him, his treatment will be actively sympathetic.
     I do wish that you were in England, as I feel sure that you would be invited to attend the shooting of some of the episodes and that you would be satisfied with the result.
            Your sincere friend, DOWDING

It was perhaps a stroke of genius by the producers of Battle of Britain that when the media was invited to a press call featuring Lord Dowding and a number of the Few, it was Group Captain Douglas Bader who pushed the old man's wheelchair. So far as Battle of Britain is concerned, Dowding and Park are undoubtedly the heroes and victors of our Finest Hour. Hopefully this went a little way towards providing the long overdue public recognition due to both of these remarkable men.

Although of far less importance, I would make just one other point regarding the accuracy of Battle of Britain. The Battle of Britain lasted for 16 weeks, from July 10th - October 31st, 1940. During that time it progressed through several distinct phases of enemy attacks. By September 30th, however, the Luftwaffe was unable to any further sustain such heavy losses to its bombers by day. As a result the emphasis was switched to night attacks, although fast Ju 88s, albeit in no more than Gruppe (Wing) strength and heavily escorted by fighters, continued to attack by day targets connected with the aircraft industry. With the onset of autumn proper even these attacks petered out. Nevertheless, German fighters continued undertaking Freie Jagd ('Free Hunting' fighter sweeps) over southern England. By this time at least one Staffel (squadron) in every Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Group) was designated a Jabo or fighter-bomber unit. These bomb carrying Me 109s were integrated into the overall enemy formation which could not, therefore, be ignored. Today, many RAF fighter pilots remember this as the most exhausting phase as they had to provide constant standing patrols from dawn to dusk. These clashes between the opposing fighter forces continued, in fact, into February 1941. The Battle of Britain did not, therefore, suddenly end with little or no enemy air activity, which is the impression given by the film's closing scenes. Far from it, but again how else could victory - for that is what it was - be emphasized?

Today, incredible though it sounds, there is a large percentage of our population that has either never heard of the Battle of Britain proper or has no true perception of what it was all about. These people have no idea of what was at stake that fateful summer or, consequently, the immeasurable debt that we will always owe the Few. The occasional television screening of Battle of Britain today is, therefore, important for far greater a purpose than was intended. Although a better film could perhaps be made today, given the excellence of available computerized technology and even more up-to-date research, overall the 30-year old Battle of Britain continues to do the cause great service.

Dilip Sarkar, 1999

 

 

- END-

 

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